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Friday, May 7, 2010: Fear of Falling from Heights

                I’ve always had a fear of heights. To be more specific, I’ve had a fear of falling from heights.  I overcome the fear on a regular basis: life sometimes demands work on ladders, or walking across narrow makeshift bridges while hiking, or climbing observation towers because everyone else in your group wants to get a view of the countryside.

             Curiously, I’ve found that conquering the fear does not erase its effect on future events. Put me close to any edge, looking down far enough, and my body reacts: my butt tingles, a lump rises in my throat, and I experience the sensation of losing my balance.

            See this photo taken shortly after my sixty-first birthday? See the thumbs up gesture? This photo was taken moments after the biking “mishap” that made me seriously question if I’d live to see sixty-two.

             Our trail bikes are a relatively new purchase. I’m very slowly getting used to riding over rocks and roots and between narrow clearings of trees. I don’t yet enjoy trail riding the way I like “regular biking,” and sometimes I spend large sections of the trail muttering unpleasant comments, but I manage.  

          We brought the trail bikes with us to West Virginia, and the first day I dutifully set out after my more adventuresome husband. The Kaymoor Trail had been one-way truck loop originally servicing the Kaymoor coal mine. Now a hiking/biking trail open to the public, it is still one-lane wide at best, with hills and curves, but a relatively level surface. Cliffs rise on one side where veins of coal still occasionally peek out. Of course, there is a steep drop-off on the other side. 

         When we came to a narrow spot (where water seepage or waterfalls crossed and eroded the path), I walked my bike past the first few spots. Eventually I gained confidence the bike tires could handle most muddy patches and small run-offs.

            Views of the New River Gorge far below were spectacular and the entrance to an old deserted mine shaft (sealed off for safety) could be observed at the highest point of the trail. With lots of new things to photograph, I was content.  By the time we turned around and were riding back down the trail, I was only mildly anxious about the outside edge. I quit hugging the cliff side of the road and steered instead toward the better road surface.

           It was in this brief moment of confidence that the “mishap”occurred. My husband said he watched my rear tire go up in the air. For a brief moment, I was aware of the rear tire coming down in a wet, muddy patch. Then it slid sideways, off the road, and over the embankment, pulling me with it.

            Two hands (thrown out instantly to each side) and one knee sunk several inches into the muddy edge. Somehow, I pinned the front wheel of the bike beneath my body. We dangled there, my bike and me, fighting the pull of gravity. Eventually, I managed to pull us both back up onto the path.

            Oddly, in the aftermath, I found my system flooded with endorphins instead of adrenalin. I could scrape off the bigger clumps of mud, get back on my bike, and ride the rest of the trail. (I did get off the bike to cross this waterfall section.) The emotions of the experience itself became muted by the emotional response that followed. I felt remarkably good, having lived through one of my worst nightmares.

            It was not until the next day’s ride that the fear resurfaced with a vengence. This day’s trail was narrow, with rocks and old railroad ties adding more challenge than I could handle.  I walked my bike past every narrowing of the path. In fact, I ended up walking my bike through most of the trail. (In my defense, my husband considered that trail the “ride from hell” and was frequently off his bike, walking for long sections).

            I was disappointed to see my survival of the previous day had done so little to erase what now seemed an engrained fear. My emotions had become brittle (at least temporarily), and I was even more leery of narrow mountain roads.

            Does anyone ever permanently overcome fear of heights and fear of falling? Why can some people paint the undersides of bridges, or walk across construction beams, or go rock climbing, while I get creeped out just thinking about what it would be like?

              I've been told that as a toddler, I’d been seated in a shopping cart when my mother let go of the handle to reach for some grocery item. The weight of an older brother riding on one side pulled the entire shopping cart over.  My leg was broken in the fall. I was way too young to have any memory of the incident, yet couldn’t these events get recorded in some primitive manner, so embedded in the subconscious that they linger forever?  

            It’s an imperfect theory.  I’m aware my infant memory could never be the sole cause for “fear of heights and falling,” since I know too many other people with the same fear.  Is there a genetic factor for risk tolerance that makes some people less fearful of heights than others? Or am I just a wimp who avoids facing my fear and removing its influence once and for all?

Posted on Friday, May 7, 2010 at 08:21AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

OMG.I'm so glad you survived and full of admiration for your courage to even get out on the trail the next day! There's something about accidents that shakes us to the core, but often afterwards, not at the time (when you're rejoicing you're still alive!) I think of this now that I'm an almost-daily bike rider in a city, wondering if and when I'll have an accident, but my father always made me dust myself up and get back to whatever I was doing when I fell or crashed, and I think it was good advice. So glad you're OK.
May 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbeth

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